How To Build A Nonprofit Using The Lean Startup

Kris Newcomer is the first to admit that she became the Executive Director of The Firefly Sisterhood — a non-profit organization that connects women recently diagnosed with breast cancer with inspirational survivors — by being in the right place at the right time.

The idea for the non-profit originally came from an internal competition at General Mills called “The Big Bold Idea.” Yoplait, a brand under General Mills, has always done work with breast cancer, so they pitched an idea called (at the time) “Big Sister, Bigger Sister” which won the contest. But after they got the money to actually begin to build the project, they realized that the idea was too big for them to do it justice internally.

That’s when Kris got involved. “I was working for another non-profit and got a call…and [was] asked if I could talk about starting a non-profit.” Those talks eventually led to her being offered the role of founding executive director of the project.

“That’s how we started, we literally read the book.” Share on X

The Importance of Learning Lessons as You Go

Even with a solid background in non-profit technology marketing, Kris hadn’t started a non-profit from the ground up before. So as she was getting started, she spoke with a lot of people, one of whom literally handed her The Lean Startup book and told her that it would be her new bible. “That’s how we started,” Kris says, “we literally read the book.”

The Lean Startup approach made a lot of sense to Kris. One of the things that really struck and empowered her was that she didn’t have to know everything to start. “I’m comfortable living with and making a decision with 60% of the knowledge,” she says, “not a lot of people are.”

She also used what she learned to help Firefly Sisterhood stay focused so they could grow and develop. They focused on what they needed to know and do right now and not get distracted by loftier future goals and numbers.

She and her team would go through their metrics every three to four months and take the time to figure out what lessons they could pull from those metrics and the feedback they were getting. They were constantly listening, learning and deciding whether it made more sense to pivot their process or to persevere.

To Pivot or Persevere

As with any new startup, Kris and her team had to figure out all of the working parts of their business. They were building from the ground up while figuring out how to serve, train and work with three wildly different customer bases: women with breast cancer who need support, women who’ve had breast cancer who volunteer with Firefly Sisterhood, and health systems. This meant they were tasked with constantly solving new problems.

One of the problems they had to solve early on was figuring out how to match their volunteers with breast cancer patients. Essentially a for their customer base, “we match women on their age, diagnosis, their treatment, and their life experience,” Kris says, so they needed more than a simple spreadsheet to find the right match. After exploring a lot of different options, they ended up landing on SalesForce, which has been an interesting but effective solution. “It’s not perfect, but it does work for us,” Kris says, pointing out that that solution has reduced the time it takes to make a match from six hours to two hours.

With each new task they tackled, they were always checking to make sure that they were serving their mission, which is fostering one-on-one connections. And as problems arose, they would take stock and ask themselves, “should we pivot or persevere?” Meaning, should they try a new tactic to reach their goal, or keep going forward on their current path. Sometimes, the answer was to do both.

But with every new challenge, listening to and communicating with their customer base has proven to be invaluable. Through the process of listening, Kris emphasizes, “you can start hearing what your customer is saying, not just expecting what you [already] know.”

It’s something that she continues to come back to as they move towards their future goals of stabilizing their organization as it stands today and eventually expanding to build a network of like-programs across the country while still staying true to their reputation and to the customers that they serve.

“You can start hearing what your customer is saying, not just expecting what you already know.” Share on X

Applying Lean Startup Methods Outside of the Office

For Kris, The Lean Startup methods have not only been effective in helping her grow Firefly Sisterhood but has also influenced the way she interacts and works with members of her local school board.

In Kris’ experience, educators tend to be less comfortable making decisions unless they have all the data. But she thinks that in order to make positive changes, they have to start being more flexible in their willingness to try new things or the status quo won’t evolve.

So her school board is trying something they call “Project 2031” named for the year that this year’s kindergartners will graduate from high school. They’re working to be more flexible in their thinking and approach in order to try new things. And if it’s not working? Pivot and persevere.

Ultimately, for Kris, Lean Startup has given her a new way of approaching things. “I think what I like about The Lean Startup is…it allowed me to figure out a way to activate [and] move to action.” It’s made her realize you have to have accountability and fidelity to the process and really commit to what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.

She also re-emphasizes the need to be comfortable moving forward when you don’t know everything. Not being able to take action until you have all the information will trip you up. “Live in the gray area and be able to make decisions with 60% of your information.”

Did you enjoy this blog? Catch the full webcast below.

If you’d like to read the full transcript of Marilyn’s conversation with Kris, download it.


Thanks to Shannon Lorenzen for contributing this piece. If you seek to bring the entrepreneurial spirit to your organization, Lean Startup Co. can help.